Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

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Wine and Words

Everything exists in the word,” writes Pulitzer-prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in his “Memoirs.”


That includes wine.

When words are chosen with respect for their meaning, their power can be awesome.

The story of the 33 Chilean miners, Neruda’s compatriots, who became trapped in a copper mine a half mile below ground in August 2010, and survived to tell the tale of their ordeal, is the story of the power of seven simple words that meant exactly what they said to mobilize a world to come to the miners’ rescue: «Estamos Bien en el Refugio, Los 33» (“We are well in the security chamber, the 33”)

Penned in red ink and attached to the first drill bit to breach their refuge chamber, within minutes of this note reaching the surface, several continents had launched a rescue effort. Some provided heavy equipment, some the latest technology, and other experts in the field, all to aid in the rescue of “Los 33.”

All in response to just seven thrilling words.

As a writer and professor of English, I was left in awe of the simplicity, power, and poetic beauty of this amazing note, and was inspired to launch my own response to the power of these seven words that still give me goose bumps each time I read ithem.

I wrote “Seven Words that Moved the World” (below) in the weeks following the dramatic rescue of “Los 33,” then put it away. Recently, I came across a small selection of Chilean wines in the South Pacific section of wines in a local store. I was intrigued by the language on the labels. It told you what you needed to know, and left you to figure out the rest on your own. It was enough to enticed me to buy a couple of samples: a 2011 Los Vascos Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc ($14); and a Viu Manent Estate Collection 2011 Malbec ($9).

This power of a few words to generate action inspired me to turn again to my piece on the Chilean miners and the powerful note they had written for their rescuers. In my search for some clues to what I was beginning to regard as a cultural understanding by Chileans of the power of words, I reread Neruda’s Memoirs.

Just as wine is a product of the earth the grape vines grow in, and “of the sun and rain that fall on them,” so, it seemed to me, were the Chilean miners a product of the land and culture that produced Pablo Neruda and his sublime awareness that “everything exists in the word.” In the superb Chilean wines described in the paragraphs following “Seven Words that Moved a World,” I hope you will find the flavors of the culture that produced them.

(And not to miss the irony: it took me 1,036 words to express my appreciation for the power of seven!)
« Estamos Bien en el Refugio, Los 33 »
(“We are well in the security chamber, the 33”)

How did 33 Chilean miners trapped a half mile underground in dark, sweltering conditions for 17 dreadful days, the food scanty, the water foul-tasting, and with no way of knowing would they ever be found—not only survive but survive in good health and good spirits? The clue to the answer resides in the seven profoundly simple words they sent to the top with the first drill bit that broke into their safe room: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33.” It seemed unbelievable. After such an extended ordeal, how could they be both alive and well, all 33? Yet they were, as the first video camera images revealed.

Visible in the video were 33 strong and serenely calm men, their bodies and faces dirt-smudged, yet all physically healthy and seemingly at peace with themselves and each other as they moved about in their safe chamber. Clad only in underwear, and with expressions of relief, even joy, on their faces, they were just as their seven words said they were—alive and well, all 33.

After an additional seven and a half weeks below ground, during which time the world mobilized to find a way to get them to safety, they were winched to the surface, one by one, in the narrow rescue cage, and when they stepped out of this capsule named “Fenix,” it became apparent that their survival was a testament to the richness of their personal lives and the humble dignity with which they lived—at work, at home, and in their social connections. Out of this life was woven into their DNA the ability to form a little community within their security chamber that enabled them to keep hope alive for those 17 terrifying days when all might have seemed lost, and to survive in wellness and good spirits on their meager supplies.

And when found, to say so in just seven thrilling words: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33.” Just seven words declaring the safety, the location, and the well-being of all 33, seven words so strongly and beautifully penned that copies of the note later on became gifts to heads of State around the world.

Seven words in which they said what was needed to be said, and nothing more. In a world where we are bombarded daily with streams of meaningless words, the power, beauty, and utter simplicity of these seven words sent up from the depths of the earth declaring the well-being of the miners lost to the world for 17 days still moves me almost to tears each time I read them. And, it seems, they equally touched the world deeply.

Yet some were almost dumbfounded by the simplicity and truth of that brief message. In his essay “The Chilean Miners in Perspective,” James Soriano writes, “Seventeen days underground under sweltering heat and with barely any food or shelter, and all they had to say for it was, “We are okay.” (mb.com.ph)
But that is NOT all they had to say!

What they said, actually, was a complete story in seven words that exactly stated their conditions, thus providing everything that the rescuers and their families above ground needed to know—their state of health (well), where they were (in the security chamber), and how many of them there were (all 33).
To understand how a complete story in seven words could be written after 17 days trapped deep in the bowels of the earth, hanging between life and death, I turned to the miners’ Pulitzer Prize winning compatriot, the poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973). In a brilliant metaphorical poem “The Word” (“La Palabra”), he writes of the word as if it were a child born in pain from a warm-blooded mother:

The word was born
in the blood,
it grew in the dark body, pulsing,
and took flight with the lips and mouth.
. . . .
“Later on, meaning fills the word.
It . . . was filled with lives,
everything was births and sounds:
affirmation, clarity, strength,
negation, destruction, death . . .

In this poem written in the 1950s, it is as if Neruda were anticipating the note from the miners, their seven words filled with their lives and telling the story of their birth, their struggles through hope, strength, clarity of purpose, and of their despair and their struggle against destruction and death.
For Neruda, words seem to have almost cosmic powers: “Everything exists in the word,” he declares in his Memoirs. [‘The Word,’ Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, pp. 53-54]

Words to him are treasures greater than the treasures the “fierce conquistadores” took as they strode across the land over the centuries. “Wherever they went, they razed the land . . . But words fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here. . . .our language. . . . They carried everything off and left us everything . . . They left us the words.”

In today’s world of so much meaningless chatter, this respect for the power and beauty of words is nearly lost. People micro-blog in various forms of cryptic shorthand—“how r u?” or else they spew incessant streams of verbiage that are utterly devoid of meaning.

Yet the miners in seven simple words said all that was pertinent at the moment of their discovery. Amazing as it seemed, they had survived, they were well all of them, in their safety chamber—and that was all that mattered. Simply amazing. Yet not so simple, not so amazing, when one considers that the culture that bred and reared these brave and dignified men is the same culture that produced Pablo Neruda.

These 33 miners not only survived their terrible ordeal; they survived well!

There were two miracles in the final hours of the spectacular rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners: the first, their state of well-being as they stepped one by one from their rescue capsule; and second, the power of just seven thrilling words, simply penned, to mobilize the world to come to their rescue!

Chilean Wines:
• Sauvignon Blanc, Los Vascos 2011 “Special Selection” Chile ($14)

Los Vascos 2011 Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc - Chile

Los Vascos 2011 Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc – Chile

From the label: “Los Vascos, one of Chile’s oldest wine estates, is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafitte) . . . .The 560-hectare vineyard is located in the Cañeten valley of the Colchaugua province, which offers a healthy microclimate for its ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock. . . . Los Vascos is committed to producing the finest consistent and balanced wines whose elegance and harmony are to be shared with connaisseurs around the world.”

The details that caught my attention were Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafitte) as managers, and that the vines are propagated from ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaus rootstock. These factual details suggest that the piece of earth has been found worthy of the best selection of vines and of the best management available for this variety. The wine, I was sure, would be good. (It is!)

• Malbec, Viu Manent Estate Collection, Reserva, 2011 Chile ($9).

2011 Viu Manent Grand reserve Malbec - Chile

2011 Viu Manent Grand reserve Malbec – Chile

From the label : Valle de Colchagua, Chile: Intensely purple in colour. On the nose this wine exhibits notes of blueberry, black cherry and moist soil. In the mouth flavours of freshly picked boysenberry, raspberry and blackberry give way to notes of sweet spices and sweet mocha, combine a fresh acidity and soft tannins to give a long and balanced finish. Ready to drink now or cellar for up to 2 years.

I was drawn to the words “moist” soil, “freshly picked” berries, and “sweet” spices and mocha; I appreciated the absence of meaningless descriptors such as “delicious,” or “explosive,” or “lingering.” I wanted to try the wine. (I did; and bought more later.)


Price is not a Score

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

One thing to always remember when buying wines: Price is NOT a score! The price of a bottle of wine is never a reflection of the quality of wine inside that bottle.

Three basic factors go into the price of a bottle of wine no matter what the wine is or where it is produced. You have the cost of the grapes, the cost of equipment and labor necessary for their harvest and processing, and the cost of the bottle the wine is put into when it is finished.

These costs can vary greatly, depending on several additional factors:

• country of origin
• region where the grapes were grown (Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, SW Australia, Sonoma Valley, the Okanagan Valley, etc.)
• the vintage (that is, the year)
• the varietal (CS, PN, ZIN, Nero d’Avalo, Malbec, SB, Chard, PG, etc.)
• winemaking practices, especially the barrel ageing protocol
• quantity of wine produced
• the reputation of the producer
• marketing and distribution of the finished wine (includes bottle selection and label)

The following five red wines are all from vineyards considered best suited to the variety, and all have been made in accordance with the best winemaking practices for their regions and varieties. The price per bottle, on average, varies from almost $100 US to under $10 US.

• 2009 Las Rocas Garnacha (Spain), sourced from 80-year-old vines from the DO of Calatayud, average price about $15 US,
• Ravenswood’s 2009 Bedrock Zinfandel (US), sourced from Sonoma Valley vines about the same age (80 years), priced at $35 US,
• Vinos L.A. Cetto’s 2006 Nebbiolo (Baja CA, Mexico), sourced from 60-year-old vines in Valle de Guadalupe, priced about $20 US,
• Donnafugata 2007 “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo (Sicilia), sourced from Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avalo grapes, recommended retail price $90 US.
• Viu Manent 2011 Gran Reserva Malbec (Chile), sourced from established vines averaging 15 years in Valle de Colchagua, priced at $8.

If you consider that each of these wines is priced exactly right in accordance with the criteria provided above, and that the prices do not reflect quality, then how would you go about making the best choice among them for your dining occasion?

Well, that’s where the fun begins: you have to taste them! If upon tasting these wines you decide that the Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo from Sicily is the one you like the best (it is a gorgeous wine; I’ve tasted it, and met the winemaker), then do you like it enough to pay between 3 and 11 times more than for the other selections, which are also lovely wines, understanding that probably at least $30 of that $90 bottle price of the Donnafugata goes towards winery aesthetics and marketing?

As Kermit Lynch, owner of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, CA, said to me a few years ago:

“ ‘I think a lot of people, not in France, not in Italy, but in California and maybe the rest of the U.S., think that price is a score; that a $300 bottle of wine is better than a $100 a bottle . . . .That’s completely false. Price is no reflection of quality. You can get such good wines for cheap.’” (Rhoda Stewart, “Affordable French Wines,” Napa Valley Register: 19 September 2009)

Because price is not a score! Not that scores, for that matter, are of much use, either.